Monday, November 21, 2016

1 Timothy 5:17-25: “Relationships in the Church: Your Relationship with your Elders”

A good relationship with God and people is  inherent  to the teaching of the Bible. It is  at the heart of the 10 commandments  and  it is reaffirmed by Jesus in Mark 12:30,31 : “Love God … love your neighbour…”.  

The 5th Chapter  of   Paul’s letter to Timothy  deals  with relationships  at  different levels.  

(i)                 In  5:1-2  Paul  tells  Timothy how to relate, as a pastor  to older men, younger men, older women and younger women in the church.

(ii)               In  5:3-16  Paul helps Timothy  in terms of relating  to widows and vulnerable people in the church. We  will consider this  text, God willing  in February 2017  when we plan to have a “Diaconate Awareness Sunday”  explaining, and  showcasing our diaconal ministry.

(iii)             In 5: 17-25  Paul  explains  how  we ought to relate to  the  elders of the church, and how to understand their   calling and character.  
To this matter  we now turn our attention. 
  
The matter of  the elder and diaconal leadership  of the church was   already raised by Paul in Chapter 3: 1-13.  In the matter of eldership  Paul had  stated that “ If anyone aspires to the  office of an overseer, he desires  a noble task” (3:1)  after which he also gives a list of  necessary qualifications  (3:2-7).

Now as we come to our text in 5:17-25,   Paul deals  with  5  further  aspects   relating to  the office of the elder: 

(i)  5:17,18: The remuneration of  the  full-time elders- particularly those who are set apart  to labour  in preaching and teaching. 
(ii) 5:19-20: The  church discipline for elders who sin.
(iii) 5:21: The importance  of being impartial.
(iv)  5:22-23:  The importance of not  being hasty in the laying on of hands (w.r.t elder ordination)
(v)    5:24-25:  The importance of discernment.



1.      5:17,18 : The remuneration of  the  elders that rule well – particularly  those who are set apart  to labour  in preaching and teaching:

The emphasis here is on  the elders  who  “ruling well“. It  appears  as if the elders  of the  early churches were remunerated, because  they put in a lot of work and effort into the work of shepherding the flock, and Paul has particularly those in mind  who were set apart  for the  preaching and teaching  of the Word.  Such elders  who  ruled well in the church, and  especially those  that laboured  in the Word [Gr. kopos lit.  “toil  resulting in weariness” (Vines) ]  ought to be considered  worthy of double honour.  Since the  Word of God  is central to the church’s life  because the Word accurately preached  maintains the proper  Christ centered focus  of the church, it is important that  the church recognizes this appropriately. Such elders who rule well,  and who diligently labour in the Word, says  Paul are  worthy of double honour.  What is meant by double honour?  It means  generous provision, but this would  depend on  their efficiency,  as the adverb ‘well’  indicates.     

V.18  (a quote from Deut.  25:4)  is linked to this thought, and the argument  goes that if  God is concerned that working animals are adequately fed, how much more concern must He not have for those that labour  on behalf of the church. Paul’s second quotation  follows, “The labourer deserves his wages”. These words were in fact spoken by Jesus in Luke  10:7. [1] Comparing  pastoral work to   the work that  oxen or  labourers  do may not sound very flattering, but it does  in essence describe the work of the pastor.  Biblical pastors do a lot of plodding work, a lot of menial work. They are, after all,  only servants. However,  Paul  says, that such work  ought to  be tangibly appreciated  in the church.

2.      5: 19-20 : Church discipline for elders who sin : Those who do not rule well

Paul now turns from  good pastor –elders who deserve recognition and appreciation  to bad pastor elders who deserve  to be rebuked. He  address the  manner  in which  sinning elders need to be addressed.  Paul gives two directives in this regard:
(i)                  What to do when an elder is accused  (v.19)
(ii)                What to do when an elder is found guilty  (v.20)

In the first instance  Paul says  that  the church  is not  to receive  an accusation against an elder except  on the evidence of    two or three witnesses (v.19) i.e. the charge must be substantiated by several people. This is an OT principle (Deut. 19:15)  which is maintained in the NT ( 2 Cor. 13:1 cf. Matt. 18:16). This  regulation  is important  for the protection of  pastor –elders , who easily become the subjects of gossip and slander. A smear campaign can ruin a pastor’s ministry. Therefore it is important  that such charges  are actually proven. Hear-say   is not good enough. Facts  and witnesses are needed.

In the second instance, when an elder is  proven guilty  (and remains guilty or unrepentant  –  note the present tense), such  should be rebuked in the presence of all.  The general rule is that private sin ought to be  confronted privately,  and public sin ought to be  dealt with publicly. When elders sin against the church, they must be dealt with before the church, so that  the rest may stand in fear. Church discipline is necessary  because  the heart and life of the church is at stake. If problems are routinely ignored and glossed over, this produces  an atmosphere  where others will be tempted and encouraged to sin.  Church discipline  causes people  to take note .
Such an action, in terms of public rebuke  must always be the  last resort  however, and it is never a cause  for  gloating. It  is a very sad  thing  for  church elders to sin. Many   of God’s flock are devastated when that happens.

3.      5:21 : The importance  of being impartial

Now Paul   solemnly charges  Timothy with a very important matter, “ I charge you to keep these rules without  prejudging (Gr. prokrima – jumping to conclusions), doing nothing from partiality (favouritism).”  In the matter of dealing with elders  and people  it is very important that  a sense of  fairness must prevail. The history of the church has often shown the opposite, where sinning priests, pastors  and elders have  sometimes been  protected by the system and excused  from their sin, whilst  many a church member has continued  to  live  with the  bitterness of injustice.

Pastor-elders  must strive to  be impartial , and  where  two people  or parties  are at odds  with one another  it is important  that  sides are not taken ; that truth is established and that people are helped forward . At all times elders will strive to keep people together, since God is a God of peace   and the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of Unity and the Lord Jesus Christ has died to make us one.

4.      5:22-23 :  Be careful in  hasty laying on of hand (  with reference to elder ordination)

In context, the laying on of hands  here probably refers to pastor – elder  ordination. In the pastoral epistles  we have two  other occasions when mention is made of the laying on of hands  [1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6].
It is a very common human tendency to make premature and hasty decisions  which should have  been made with  adequate testing and prayer. There may of course be an opposite mistake,  when  we fail to make a decision at  all. The general rule is that it is  better to take time with the appointment of   church leaders.
There is an added thought linked to this statement, “nor take part in the sins of others”.  If through excessive haste a mistake is made or  if the person chosen as a leader in the church    happens to be spiritually unqualified or acting unwisely or sinfully (and contrary to the  character expressed in 1 Tim 3:1-7), Timothy may  find that he shares  in the sins of others or find himself implicated  in other people’s  misdeeds[2]. There is no thing such as sinning in isolation. An eldership can go through a very difficult time as a result of one man's sin, and much energy  needed elsewhere can be wasted and drained    when  the eldership  faces internal  sin issues. When this happens it almost feels that the gospel is  put on hold, while much  precious time is  spent on  resolving sin issues. 
Paul  wants to spare  Timothy  from these things . He wants  Timothy to  keep himself pure  by making wise, godly  leadership  appointments .

5.      5:24-25 :  The importance of discernment

These verses develop Paul’s emphasis on the need for caution and  add  a further reason to avoid haste. The fact of the matter is that  people are frequently different  from what they appear at first. Frequently we underestimate or overestimate people. The point is that  true character only surfaces over a period of time, and therefore time is needed to establish proven character. The passage in 1 Timothy  3:1-7 makes it clear that an elder’s character must be established  before  he can serve  as such.
Now, says Paul, ”the sins of  some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgement…”. The  case is clear  here, but other cases  “the sins  of others appear later”, The same criterion can be applied  to  good works. Some are  immediately apparent, “ and  in the same way  also good works are conspicuous”,  and other good works take a little time before they surface  “…and even those that are not  cannot remain hidden…”
The point is that we cannot judge by mere appearances. We need discernment. We learn this from an iceberg. 9/10 of the iceberg is hidden below the surface. In the same  way  9/10 of a person’s character is  hidden from view, and  is  this this  9/10  which is  the substance of the iceberg. It is this major fraction  that   does  the damage, as the captain of the Titanic discovered too late. We therefore need time to make an assessment  of a person’s character. Attractive  personalities and people  often have hidden weaknesses, whilst ordinary, unassuming people  may have hidden strength. Don’t judge a book by its cover, the English  Proverb says. You need to read it to make an assessment, and reading takes time.   Elders must never be chosen on the  superficial basis of having  high  business or political profiles.  Christian character is everything. It is the essential  test that an elder  must pass.  We need to learn to discern between the seen and the unseen, the surface and the depth, the appearance and the reality.

SUMMARY:
So then we have   learned 5  things  in understanding  and dealing with our  pastors or  elders: 

1.      Appreciate them when  they rule well
2.     Deal with them  fairly   when they do not do well.Make sure that any charge against an elder is substantiated by two  or more  witnesses. 
3.      Elders should be impartial , avoiding all favouritism
4.      Elders should be carefully chosen 
5.      A proper  discernment  needs to be made with respect to choosing elders.  Look beyond  outward appearance. 

Whenever the church takes these principles seriously, mistakes will be avoided and the church will be  preserved  in peace and love,  and God’s Name will be protected and  honoured. 
Amen!



[1] Context: Jesus charge to the 70
[2] see also Galatians  6:1

Monday, November 14, 2016

Acts 8:1-25 “Philip the Evangelist and the Gospel Mission to the Samaritans“

The death of Stephen has a three-fold chain of cause and effect :
(i)         His martyrdom leads to a great persecution
(ii)        The great persecution leads to a great dispersion
(iii)       The great dispersion  resulted in  widespread evangelism

Truly, the gates of hell shall never overcome the church, because the foundation of the church is Jesus Christ,  who has overcome the evil one through His death on the cross! Satan is bound in this age. The Gospel must triumph. 

A  wonderful thing has happened in the 20th  century. In 1949, when the Communists came into power in China, 637 China Inland Missionaries had to leave.  Contrary to popular expectation  Christianity has not died in China, but has grown significantly  by means of  local evangelists. There are now 40 or 50 times more Christians in China under persecution, than the time when the missionaries had left.  The exact figures are not known. Official government figures puts the number at around 23 million Christians in 2010, but  a Pew Research Center report estimates that there may be close to 68 million Christians in China (which is 5 % of total population). [1]  Another report   maintains that there  may be as many as 200 million Christians[2].  The lack of credible statistics on how many Christians  there are in China today have led to estimates that vary widely.

…. Which brings us to the point!

In Chapter 8 we are introduced to the second of the major 5  characters  in terms of the foundation of the mission to the gentiles: Philip the evangelist. Philip, like Stephen was one of the seven, who were  chosen to take care of the  diaconal or social responsibilities of the church. (Acts 6)
It immediately strikes us that these men did not only engage in diaconal work, but  we note that Stephen proved to be a competent theologian and a discerner of spiritual issues, and  he  showed the ruling council, the  Sanhedrin up!  

Philip  impresses us with his bold evangelism of the Samaritans and  also the Ethiopian eunuch on the road between Jerusalem to Gaza. All this was really remarkable and totally uncharacteristic for  a Jew,  who regarded the Samaritans as untouchable (cf. John 4 - the Samaritan woman). As for the Ethiopians,  they were  gentiles  too!  The only explanation for this unusual  boldness is that the Holy Spirit was truly at work here. 

We  may divide the story of  Philip into two sections:

(i)  proclaiming the gospel to the Samaritans (8:5 - 25) 
(ii)  proclaiming the gospel to an Ethiopian eunuch (8:26 - 40).We will  consider this story   next time .

1.PHILIP BRINGS THE GOSPEL TO THE SAMARITANS (8:4-8) : 

Philip evangelises the city:  8:4 begins  with the phrase "those who had been scattered  went about preaching the word ( lit. evangelised i.e. announced the good news) wherever they  went."  8:5 tells us that Philip proclaimed (Gr. kerusso - to proclaim/herald) the Christ (Messiah)  in Samaria.

It is interesting to note that the Samaritans were also expecting a Messiah (see Jn. 4:25). Remember too that in that context (Jn. 4:26) Jesus plainly claims that He is the Messiah  who  the Jews and they, the Samaritans are waiting for! Jesus therefore announces Himself to be the Messiah of the Jews and the gentiles.  In that context too, we take note that the Samaritans are ready to  believe in Jesus (Jn.  4:39 - 42) and  here they plainly state that they believe that this man really is the Saviour of the world.

As Philip proclaims the Christ, and as he does miraculous signs  they paid close attention (Gr. prosecho) to what He said. Oh, what a tremendous phrase that is. Give  your close and full and undivided attention to the gospel, and you will see greater things than you have ever seen before! Many people are simply not bothered to examine the gospel, and so they easily  miss the narrow road that leads to life! 
And so we see that  the gospel is  not only confronting the dark and unbelieving hearts of men, but  it also confronts  the dark forces of evil, "for unclean spirits crying out with a loud voice came out of many who had them..." (8:7)  Who can stand  before this gospel? What power can stand before God? (Rom.1:16,17)  
No wonder that there was much joy in that city! (8:8)

2.  SIMON THE SORCERER PROFESSES FAITH (8:9-24) 

Before Philip arrived in the city, it had been under the spell of a very different sort of power. A man named Simon had amazed all the people of  Samaria   because  of  his great magic  (8:11). He was known  as "the man who is the power of God that is called Great’” (8:10). But now he finds himself challenged by  Philip. This was  the authority of Christ  that confronted and triumphed over the "lesser greater powers "!  What Simon  saw convinced him that he was outclassed! The demons know that too, and  they shudder! (James 2:19).

Philip's preaching concerning the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, caused  many in Samaria to believe, and like the first converts in Acts 2, they were baptised in response to their profession of faith. 
This is great! 
The gospel triumphs! 
Men and women are snatched out of the kingdom of darkness and heaven rejoices in welcoming its lost sons and daughters.

Two tricky issues, arise  from this  text:

(i) Simon claims to believe and is baptised (8:13), but his false motives in believing are later exposed (18 - 24). So the first  tricky issue is whether it is possible that someone may profess faith, be baptised, and yet subsequently  prove to be an  apostate.

(ii) The second tricky issue (which has caused division in the modern church) relates to the happenings in 8:14 - 18. Here we see  that the Samaritan believers receive the Holy Spirit after their profession of faith, and at the laying on of hands by the apostles. What did the apostles have which Philip did not?  Is the Christian experience of salvation a "one-stage" or "two stage" experience?

The  Issues  Resolved 

1.      Is it possible to profess faith and be baptised and yet be lost?

Yes it is!  Read  8:18 &19!  Simon  was tempted to purchase this power.  Peter  immediately rebuked Simon  publicly for imagining that God's gift could be bought (8:20).  Simon’s  true heart  was exposed in an instant. Peter rebuked him and to told him to repent. The words in 8:23 are deeply instructive: "I see that you are in the gall  of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity”. Simon Magus was  a false professor. He was still ruled by evil.  This teaches us  that  only time can tell whether a profession is sincere. Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth eventually speaks! We  have no record here of Simon  repenting!

I have met people like this,  who have attempted to turn the spiritual into the commercial, and to manipulate the things of God  in order to gain prominence in the church of God. They have no share in this ministry because their heart is not right with God! No matter how much  we profess to be Christian and  no matter whether we have been baptised in response to that profession - by our fruit, or  fruitlessness,  we shall be known. The Holy Spirit will sooner or later bring out our true nature, by taking us through the fire of purification (see also 1 Cor. 3:12-15). 

2.      Should we expect a 'second blessing' subsequent to our conversion?

Does this passage  teach  a two stage experience in our lives?  Should we  expect the Holy Spirit to be given in a spearte experience, after  our conversion experience?

Those who hold to are  two stage initiation come  from  groups at the opposite end of the church spectrum i.e. Catholics and Anglo Catholics on the one end and Pentecostals and some Charismatics on the other end. 
Catholics and  Anglo  Catholics (Anglicans)  teach  that the first stage is baptism which is conferred upon an infant, and the second stage  is confirmation by a bishop. 
Pentecostal churches and some Charismatic churches also teach a two stage initiation, but formulate it differently. To them the first stage consists of conversion followed by water baptism,   while the second stage  is a  'baptism in or  by  the Holy Spirit', followed by the gift  tongues  which is often, but not always associated with the laying on of hands by a Pentecostal/ Charismatic  leader.

And so  we have this situation where the  Samaritans are described as not yet  having received the Spirit. They have simply been baptised into Christ.  That sounds like  a typical Old Testament  style of baptism, such  as  John the Baptist  would have practised  (see  also Acts 19:2-7). There is as yet no "fire" (i.e. Holy Spirit ) baptism, such  as is associated with the  the Lord Jesus Christ!

So what is happening here? Why was it necessary  for an official apostolic delegation  from Jerusalem to confirm the work of Philip?  For what special reason could God have withheld the Spirit?  The most  logical explanation  is this.  This was the first occasion on which the gospel had been proclaimed  outside Judea and in gentile territory!  
It was step two in   terms of our key verse in Acts 1:8 "… You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and  Samaria … to the ends of the earth."  
The conversion of the  Samaritans was  the  official first fruits of the gentile mission field. This was a moment of significant advance in the kingdom of God! Something special needed to happen,just as special as in Jerusalem  on the day of Pentecost! This public sign  of the  Holy Spirit’s outpouring  had  been first  given  in Jerusalem in the presence of the  apostles, Christ’s appointed leaders.  
This act and the following manifestation now joined these two works! Believing Jews and believing gentiles are now God's new people - Christians - the church of God! Baptised by one Spirit, and possessing one faith, one Lord (Eph. 4:5).  This was the sign that the Samaritans (symbolic of the gentile harvest field) were incorporated on precisely the same terms as the Jewish converts. There was now one body, because there was one Spirit. The dividing wall had  finally come down. (Eph. 2:11-22).

CONCLUSION:

And so we see that the gospel spreads, just as Jesus  had said , and  despite the incredible  odds.  The power of the gospel is greater than any demonic power. It is mightier than  our sin  and our fallen natures.  Our  Saviour is mightier than the great powers of the Universe. 

We see what God can do through one  man, Philip,whose life is yielded to Jesus. 

Above all we see how the gospel of the kingdom of God finally unites  the scattered people of God, Jews and Gentiles  into one body!
There is something very wrong  with that 20th century phenomenon – the so called  Pentecostal and Charismatic revival, because by it the church was not gathered but scattered. The division of the modern church is truly  terrible to behold.  This is  so  because of its insistence on experience and not on the objective Word of God.  

Hear Jesus’s words in  Luke  11:23: “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”  That is what is happening today. Many are scattering the church, but the testimony of the Bible  shows us that the  true gospel  unites  the people of God. Hold on to the gospel, dear ones.
Amen !

Friday, November 11, 2016

Acts 7 - "Stephen’s Defense and Death ”

Last time  we saw that  Stephen  (one of the 7  men of Acts 6)  was being accused for blaspheming against Moses (the law) and against  the temple (6:13,14).This is an extremely serious charge, for nothing was more sacred to the Jews than the law of God and their temple. 
Now to be clear, the law was God's word, and the temple was the manifestation  of  God's presence. But Stephen  pointed out resolutely that the law and the temple were  not an end in themselves.  Jesus was the  End of everything.And so, it was ultimately on account of Jesus, that Stephen as a true disciple of Jesus,  was  being treated in exactly the  same manner  as the Lord   Jesus  when He was being accused by  the Jewish  ruling council.

And so , as the Sanhedrin were looking (gazing)  at Stephen,   all who sat in the council saw that his face  was like the face of an angel (6:18), and it reminds us of Moses,   whose face shone in a similar manner  when he had come down from  Mount Sinai, after he had received the law of God.

With this observation  the high priest commences with the interrogation  concerning the false  charges  made in 6: 11-14. The High priest said: “Are these things so? “ (7:1)

THE DEFENCE: 7:1-53

What follows is a lengthy defense by Stephen.  His defense is actually  a history lesson  of the Jews,beginning with Abraham  and  ending  with a counter - accusing charge  in vv. 51-53 in which he accuses the Sanhedrin that  they were in fact  stiff necked and  stubborn, always  resisting the Holy Spirit. 

So, having read the text, let me sum it up in a nutshell. Remember, the primary charge is that Stephen  blasphemes against the temple and the law. Note how he defends himself: 

1.     Stephens’s defense with regard to the right use of the  temple:

The Jews  associated  the temple with the presence of God in their midst. That is  certainly  true, as many passages  (e.g. Ps. 27:4 etc) would  indicate.  And God  had indeed  promised to  manifest Himself  among the Jews in this way (2 Chron. 7) However in doing so they went far further than Scripture intended - and absolutely bound God to His temple,  by making the place and the  stones  themselves  a sacred place.
It is  fascinating to see how Stephen demolishes that sort of thinking. He uses prominent O.T. figures  such  as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses (in particular), David and Solomon to make his case.

The  important feature of  Stephen’s argument  is that  under none of these people  was God's presence limited to any particular place. The God of the O.T. was the God on the move. He was  always calling His people to move out into His purposes,  and always accompanying and directing them as they went.  Think about this :
  •          Abraham had no temple.
  •      Joseph had no temple.
  •         Moses eventually  had a moving tabernacle (portable temple)
  •        David had a tabernacle (and often not - whilst he was fleeing)
  •      Solomon eventually build the temple, but  Solomon and Stephen  were quick to point out that no one could build a house for God, for no one and no building  could contain the infinite God of the Universe (see 7:48,49).
  • So then, the  holy place is not  so much a temple  in Jerusalem. The Holy place is where God is, and  it is the place where he is truly honoured. And God is where His chosen people are, and if it happens to be the temple in Jerusalem,  then good and well!
Stephen, in citing both Solomon and Isaiah thus had it right when  he said, "The most High does not live in houses made by hands."(7:48 -50).  God   has always lived in the  midst  of His  people. His dwelling place is always  with them and the highest expression of  His glory is the place where  His people assemble.  The temple in Jerusalem was built for this purpose, but rarely did it serve  this purpose in history, and certainly not in Jesus  day, when  He had to tell them that the temple  was no longer used as a house of prayer and worship, but  that it had  in fact become a den of robbers.[Lk 19:45-48]
The O.T. and the  N.T agree in this !
  
So then, we remind ourselves that  God does not dwell in buildings. He dwells with His  people  -  the living stones! [1 Pet. 2:5]  If they happen to be in the building - good and well, but the building itself can  never be holy. 

Eastside Baptist Church was constituted  in the  June of 1985,  as a  community of worship, and to the glory of God.   A place of worship  was built  to  meet our need for assembly. It has in fact become a   house  in which  Christian  worshipers assemble.  The more people assemble for the worship of God, the more glory goes to God.  That  is why it is important that we do assemble, and God  in Holy Scripture has always encouraged the  assembly  of His people  in public worship.

There is something very wrong with a person  who does not enjoy   the assembly of God’s people. There is  something very wrong  with someone  who chooses to spend  his or her Sundays   apart from the people of God.
So  it is  not primarily  about the place built for worship   - it is about the people assembling  for true worship.  And sadly,  as  many places of worship  begin to take on a life of their own, and   they easily detract  from the  worship of God.

So, Jesus  and  Stephen showed that, contrary to the  popular  religion of their day  which thought   that God  was  contained in a physical  building,   they showed that God is with His people wherever they are. If God's people happened to be  obedient to Him and worshiped Him in the temple, He would be there  - naturally.  But  when  the temple becomes an end in itself, and when the people  of God  become disobedient  to Him  then the glory of God departs, and  this is  what   Ezekiel foresees in Chapter 10, as   the glory of God departs from the temple. 

2.     Stephen’s defense with regard to the right use of the law :

It is ironic that those who charged Jesus and Stephen with blaspheming against the law, where themselves  far more guilty of  breaking the law.  Stephen uses illustrations  from Israel's history to prove this:

In 7:25  Stephen shows  that  the people  in Moses’s  day  failed to recognize Moses as the heaven sent deliverer. In 7:27  Stephen argues  that  instead of recognizing the wisdom of Moses, the forefathers  pushed him aside. In  7:35 they rejected Moses'  leadership even though He had met with God, and they ignored  the fact that he  had become a true prophet among them.  In 7:39ff    they  frequently refused to obey  his leadership in the desert. In their hearts they often turned back to Egypt, and so  they became idolaters.

It was the same pattern with the prophets. Now they praise them, but then they killed them! (7:52

The Accused Stephen  now becomes the Accuser - 7:51 – 53.

  • He accuses them of  being stiff-necked and  of  having uncircumcised hearts and ears.   which implied that they were still heathen at heart and deaf to the truth.
  •  He accuses them of being just like their fathers  in terms of their willful rejection of God's Word. 
  • He accuses them of always resisting the Holy Spirit.
  • He accuses them of always persecuting  the prophets. In fact they were worse - because they killed God's Son, the Righteous One. So, in effect, they did not obey the law!
The heart of the  problem is that they failed to see the Christ, the promised Messiah,  whom Stephen proclaimed!

STEPHEN STONED:

Stephen's speech before the Sanhedrin was full of Christ - and this continued  to be true  even unto his death. [7:55]
See  the Sanhedrin's response in  7:57. They covered their ears, yelling at their top of their voices, thus suppressing their consciences. You cannot think rationally when you close your ears or raise your voice. Thus, in a moment of madness,  fueled by a mob mentality they stoned Stephen.
Note in 7:59 the similarity of Stephen's prayer to the Lord's prayer on the cross. oth prayed for forgiveness of their executioners and  both committed their spirits into God's  hands.

CONCLUSION:

The most direct consequence of Stephen's death was that  the church was persecuted and scattered  throughout Judea and Samaria (8:1 cf Acts 1:8) and that the mission to the gentiles began.  The church was forced out of Jerusalem, and so was the gospel. It was  now being carried to gentile territories.  Saul  who saw this,  and  who must have observed the way in which Stephen died, is soon going to be converted to become the great apostle to the gentiles. And so we see that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church! 

Some would say, how gruesome! How unnecessary! Our reply is, “don't worry about Stephen. He is with the Lord Jesus.”  Rather , worry about those hard hearts who will have to stand  before the great throne of judgement having to give an account for what they have done. Be concerned for men and women who blaspheme the Name of Christ, and who have no love or concern for Him. It is true that the church must have been shocked at the death of Stephen, but with the benefit of hindsight we can now appreciate God's providence in promoting the church's mission through  this means. 
This sort of history has repeated itself again and again in the life of the church - Europe, America, Asia and Africa  - the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, and as we have said - don't be concerned about the martyrs. Do not even be concerned about your own life, if you are a Christian. 

Maybe some of us will have to die for the sake of the gospel, so that unbelieving men and women will hear! Be more  concerned about the unbelieving world. Pray, witness, go and tell! Leave the consequence with God!  However we know that  generally speaking, Christians are slow to move out. 

What will God have to do to get us involved and active in telling the gospel to the unsaved?





[1] E.g. Lev 26:41 ;Dt 10:16 ; 30:6 ; Jer 6:10 ;9:26 ; Ez 44:7

Monday, November 7, 2016

Acts 6: 8-8: 3 "LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF STEPHEN, THE FIRST MARTYR OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH." #1

In our study of the book of Acts we have now come to the point where the church is almost on the verge of being thrust out of  Jerusalem by the Holy Spirit (remembering  Jesus' words in Acts 1:8).
 But how did this happen?
The next 6 chapters (i.e. from Acts 6:8 - 12:24) explain how the foundations of the mission to the gentiles   were  laid. 5 key people are at the forefront of what is happening in these 6 chapters:
(i)                 Stephen (6:8 - 8:3) 
(ii)               Philip  (8:4 - 40)
(iii)             Paul (9:1 - 31)
(iv)              Peter and
(v)                Cornelius (9:32 - 12:24)

These 5 men made an indispensable contribution to the global expansion of the church. Today we begin  with  Stephen, whose story is recorded for us in the portion we have just read.

A portrait of Stephen:
We first meet  him in the first 7 verses of Acts 6 - "the dispute of the widows" , which threatened to unsettle the unity and the witness of the early church. With prayer and wisdom the early church appointed 7 godly men to oversee the diaconal/ benevolence/ social needs ministry of the church. Stephen (whose name means "crown") was one of them.  He is described to us  in Acts 6:3 as "full of the Spirit and of wisdom" and in  Acts 6:8 "full of  grace and power… doing great wonders and  signs among the people."
He was  the first Christian to wear the crown of the martyr in the history of the church.

A Christ-centered man :
What really strikes us as we see him in action in life and in his dying moments, is His absolute Christ - centeredness. His testimony in life and in death was focused on Jesus. His life showed the clearness, authority and influence of Jesus.

Opposition!
We are told that opposition arose from "members of the synagogue of the freedmen" (6:9) Also mentioned are Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. The "freedmen" (libertinoi) were probably freed slaves and their descendants. The synagogue of these "freedmen" seemed to have made up from Jews of these various  parts of the world who were now living in Jerusalem.  They began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom, or the Spirit by which he spoke. (6:10)

This  then became  a smear campaign with false witnesses  involved (6:11), and so they dragged him before the ruling council (Sanhedrin),producing false witnesses. All this sounds very similar to what happened to Jesus.
We are  very familiar  with  dirty campaigns in our day . The  present  Donald Trump versus  Hillary Clinton  campaign has been reduced from  a political campaign to a personal smear campaign.

In the case of Stephen  it is somewhat different.  He, like  the Lord  Jesus  has a real case  lined up against the  Jews  and their representative  counsel- the Sanhedrin.  But when the Jews hear  Stephen’s irrefutable logic  they turn it into a smear campaign.
John Stott  observes that the same order of events has often been repeated. At first there is a theological debate. When this fails, people start a personal campaign of lies. Finally they resort to legal action in an attempt to rid themselves of  their  adversary by force .[1]

From there the story is divided into three parts:
(i)                 The accusation made against Stephen (6:13 - 15)
(ii)               The defence made by Stephen (7:1-53)
(iii)             The  sentence carried out against Stephen /death by stoning (7:54-60)

1.      THE ACCUSATION: 6:13 - 15

…basically boils down to this: Their claim was that  Stephen had blasphemed against Moses (the law) and against God  and the  temple (6:13,14).This is an extremely serious charge, for nothing was more sacred to the Jews than the law of God and their temple. The law was God's word, and the temple was the manifestation  of  God's presence.
In what sense did Stephen speak against the temple and the law? (Read  v. 14)
The facts which they present against Stephen are not  actually wrong, for this is what Jesus had indeed  said  in John 2:19, 20  (see also  Mark  14:58 and 15:29).

In the first place Jesus had dared to speak of Himself as God's new temple, replacing the old.
In Matt 12:6 he said : "I tell you, that One greater than the temple is here."  (In that same context he also proclaimed Himself as Lord of the Sabbath! Matt 12:8)
In the second place, Stephen was quoting what Jesus had said w.r.t  the law. In Matt 5:17  Jesus claimed   that He was in fact the end of the law  and that He had come  had come to  fulfill the law.
What Stephen thus said  to the Jews was correct!  It was  based on what Jesus had taught, and Jesus had clearly claimed that the temple and the law would be superseded and completed  in Himself!
What was the problem then?
Stephen, following Pentecost  and filled with  the illumination of the Holy Spirit  saw all this very clearly.  He had seen Jesus  for who He is!  But, these particular Jews, like the Jews that  condemned Christ   could  not see in Him anything but a threat  to their religion. They had understood that  He  was saying that He was greater  than their law and their temple, but they could not see that He was right!
 
Now if we accept that Christ is God, then this is purely logical that He should be  the true fulfillment of everything! He is their Creator. The law and the temple  testify to Him. They serve Him, and  they are therefore subject to Him!
But these Jews failed to recognize Christ and therefore  they would  also  not recognzse His spokesman. For  this reason they rejected Stephen!

They  were so absorbed with the law and the temple -  that they could not see the greater  reality before  them, namely that He who created the law and  He  who gave the design for the temple was now here! In truth, all they needed to read was their own Old Testament to see  the persistent testimony of the law and the prophets  concerning the rotten status  of Israel  before God. The prophets  had  said time and again to Israel that their worship was vain and empty and that it lacked  true reverence for God  -  
See for instance  Jeremiah 7: 1  - 15!

Stephen  was preaching Christ, the Messiah  who was to come,  and he proclaimed Christ  as the One in whom all,  that the O.T. foretold,  is fulfilled, including the temple and the law.

It is highly significant then  that at this point (6:15), namely  at the height of their accusations and charges  against Stephen, they  look at  him,  and they see a radiant face - like that of an angel!This is exactly what had happened to Moses' face when he came down from Mt Sinai with the law! (see Ex.  34:29ff).

In this way God was showing that both, Moses ministry of  receiving and giving of  the law, and Stephen's  receiving  and interpretation of it had  the  approval of  God. Indeed,  we must note  that God's blessing on Stephen is evident throughout his recorded  ministry i.e. the grace and power in 6:8,  his wisdom in 6:10 and his shining face in  6:15  were proof of this  fact.

Oh, but there  are none as blind as those that will not see. Have you seen Jesus  for who He is ?

 2.      THE DEFENCE: 7:1-53

This is a lengthy defence. It is  actually a lecture in OT  history  beginning with Abraham  and  ending  with an accusing charge  in 7:51-53 in which he accuses the Sanhedrin that  they were stiff necked and  stubborn , always  resisting the Holy Spirit.  

So, let me try to sum it up in a nutshell. Remember the charge is that he blasphemes against the temple and the law. Note how he defends himself:

(i)                w.r.t  the temple: the Jews thought that the temple was associated with the presence of God. That is not entirely untrue, as many passages  (e.g. Ps. 27:4 etc) indicate. However in doing so they went far further - and absolutely bound God to His temple i.e.  they were saying where the temple is , God is!  It is interesting to see how Stephen proceeds to demolish that sort of thinking. He uses prominent O.T. figures [Abraham , Isaac ,Jacob ,Joseph, Moses (in particular), David and Solomon]. The connecting feature is that  in none of these epochs was God's presence limited to any particular place. The God of the O.T. was the God on the move, who was always calling His people to move out into His purposes and always accompanying and directing them as they went. Abraham had no temple. Joseph had no temple. Moses had a moving tabernacle (portable temple). David had a tabernacle (and often not - whilst he was fleeing). Solomon eventually built the temple, but was quick to point out ) that no one could build a house for God, for no one and no building  could contain the infinite God of the Universe (see 7:48,49). The holy place is where God is. And God is where His chosen people are! God does not dwell in this building.  He dwells with his living stones! If they happen to be in the building - good and well!  Do you see that the O.T. does not contradict the N.T.?  Solomon thus had it right when  he said: "The most High does not live in houses made by men." He lives in the hearts of His redeemed children. His dwelling place is with them. For the N.T. Christian this means that he/she should be where Christ's body is, for Christ is the head of the church! And He is where His body is!  I trust that you understand this, and that it is for this reason that I encourage you to be in fellowship with Christ and His body as often as is possible. So Stephen showed that contrary to their interpretation (God is in His temple alone), Stephen showed that God is with His people., If God's people happened to be  obedient to Him and worshiped Him in the temple, He would be there  - naturally.  Ezekiel foresees in Chapter 10 the glory of God departing from the temple. 

(ii)             W.r.t the law:  It is ironic that those who charged Jesus and Stephen with blaspheming against the law, where far more guilty of it. Stephen uses arguments from Israel's history to prove this: In the first place they failed to recognize  Moses as the heaven sent deliverer (7:25).In the second place they pushed Moses aside (7:27). In the third place they rejected his leadership (7:35). In the fourth place, in the desert they refused to obey him; instead in their hearts they turned back to Egypt, and so became idolaters (7:39ff).  It was the same with the prophets. Now they praise them, but then they killed them!

(iii)             This is where the accused now becomes the accuser : see  7:51 - 53
·    Uncircumcised hearts and ears - expression common to Moses and the prophets [2], which implied that they were still heathen at heart and deaf to the truth.
·         "you are just like your fathers" i.e. in their willful rejection of God's word
·         "you always resist the Holy Spirit"
·         "was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?" In fact they were worse - because they killed God's Son , the righteous One!
·         In effect they did not obey the law!

(iv)             The heart of the matter is that they failed to see the Christ (the promised Messiah) whom Stephen proclaimed!

3.      STEPHEN STONED:

Stephen's speech before the Sanhedrin was full of Christ, and this continued into his death. Read 8:55!
See the Sanhedrin's response in 7:57 :  they covered their ears, yelling at their top of their voices, suppressing their consciences. You cannot think objectively when you close your ears or raise your voice, and thus in a moment of madness fueled by a mob mentality,  they stoned Stephen.
Note in 7:59 the similarity of Stephen's prayer to the Lord's prayer on the cross. Both prayed for forgiveness of their executioners and committed their spirits into God's  hands. Saul was there, giving approval to his death (8:1)

CONCLUSION:
The most direct consequence of Stephen's death was that  the  church was persecuted and scattered  throughout Judea and Samaria (8:1 cf Acts 1:8) and thus the mission to the gentiles began. The significance of Stephen's death can never be over estimated!
The church was forced out of Jerusalem , and so was the gospel. It was carried to gentile territories .  Saul  who saw this (and must have observed the way in which Stephen died) is soon going to be converted to become the great apostle to the gentiles.
So we see that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church!
Some would say : how gruesome! How unnecessary!  However, don't worry about Stephen. He is with the Lord Jesus. Worry about those hard hearts who will have to stand  before the great throne of Judgement. Be concerned for men and women who blaspheme the Name of Christ, and who have no love or concern for Him. 
It is true that the church must have been shocked, but with the benefit of hindsight we can now appreciate God's providence in promoting the church's mission. This sort of history has repeated itself again and again in the life of the church - Europe , America, Asia and Africa  - the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church , and as we have said - don't be concerned about the martyrs ; do not even be concerned about your own life , if you are a Christian. Maybe some of us will have to die for the sake of the gospel, so that unbelieving men and women will hear! Be concerned about the unbelieving world. Pray , witness , go and tell! Leave the consequence with God! 
Generally Christians are slow to move out with the Gospel. What will God have to do to get us involved and active in telling the gospel to the unsaved?





[1] John Stott :  The message of Acts , p. 127 ( BST series IVP)
[2] E.g. Lev 26:41 ;Dt 10:16 ; 30:6 ; Jer 6:10 ;9:26 ; Ez 44:7